When the editors of Adirondack Almanack asked me to take over Ellen Rathbone’s garden columns while Ellen is on vacation, I couldn’t help thinking, they have got to be kidding! Me, write a garden column? I guess they don’t know that I’m more of an anti-gardener. Not anti in the sense of “against” (I love other people’s gardens), but in the sense of “antithesis of.” In short, I’m a weed-loving wildflower nerd who will risk drowning and broken bones and heart attacks and Lyme disease pursuing additions to my wildflower “life list,” but I faint at the thought of cultivating the plot behind my house.
For one thing, my plot is tiny: maybe 40×10 feet of ground remains around the footprint of my old house in downtown Saratoga Springs. For another, I get little sun: a neighbor’s house closes off much of the sun from the south and tall Black Locusts grab what’s left as it passes overhead. So vegetables are out. I tried growing flowers once upon a time, but slugs and earwigs ate most of them, while Japanese Beetles and Golden Tortoise Beetles and Two-spotted Spider Mites got the rest. I did learn the names of some bugs! So the heck with gardening, I decided, and I got a sweet little Hornbeck canoe that weighs just 12 pounds and spent the next 15 years paddling away from housework and gardening chores. The world is really beautiful out there, and I didn’t have to lift a finger to make it that way.
But then last year I learned about National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program for backyard gardeners. This is a wonderful program that encourages homeowners to resist the trend to gardening with exotic species and educates them in how to restore the native habitat lost to housing and other development. One backyard at a time. You can google NWF’s website to check the particulars, but basically here’s the gist: food; water; shelter and nesting sites for insects, birds and small mammals; pollen-, fruit-, and seed-bearing plants that are native to the area, replacing exotic varieties that our local insects can’t eat; all-natural gardening techniques; no pesticides. Hey, I could manage that! Grow plants that are meant to be eaten by bugs? I’m already an expert. So here’s what I did.
I cut back an evergreen Euonymus hedge, leaving just enough of this alien invasive to provide winter cover for birds, and allowed the encroaching Virginia Creeper (a native plant with high wildlife value) to take over in summer. I piled those hedge trimmings in a hidden corner, creating a brush pile for furry critters to nest in. I already had a crabapple tree and also a shadblow, favorites of catbirds and robins. I planted a Flowering Dogwood, two Highbush Cranberry shrubs, three Red Chokeberry bushes, one Trumpet Honeysuckle, then sent off for catalogues from nurseries specializing in native New York perennials.
I purchased only those plants that can tolerate shade. A brilliant red bee balm called Oswego Tea formed the centerpiece of the flower bed. I found some Giant Purple Hyssop growing wild in a parking lot and claimed it for my own backyard bees. I hung a wren house and nailed up another for bluebirds. I filled two birdbaths (one high, one low) and sent off for a heated one to use all winter. Seed feeders and suet cages were hung. All was set, so I paid the fee and got my NWF plaque that states that my tiny urban back yard is now a Certified Wildlife Habitat. Cool! And the word went forth. The wildlife arrived. Just not quite the way I had hoped for. English Sparrows promptly stuffed both birdhouses with twigs but didn’t even nest there. Nor did any other bird. (I think I heard mice scrabbling inside one this summer, but I haven’t opened the box yet to see.) Viburnum Leaf Beetles reduced the Highbush Cranberries to shreds. Over the winter, rabbits snipped off the honeysuckle and chokeberry stems to the ground. This spring, a squirrel ate every last one of the dogwood buds just before they came into bloom. Ah well. The Oswego Tea has been glorious, with hummingbird visitors daily. The Giant Purple Hyssop is buzzing with bees. My seldom-mown grass is patchworked with violets and speedwells and spangled with fireflies each night.
I threw the viburnum shrubs away, but the snipped-off others are struggling to make a comeback. I’ll wrap some protection around them this winter, so maybe they’ll bloom next summer. Something will, anyway. Good thing I’m a lover of weeds. Wild asters have sprung up without invitation, and giant Wild Lettuces tower up to nearly the second-story windows. The critters are certainly welcome to their seeds.
As for me, I’m heading back out to the woods and the waterways. Time to return to my wildflower hunts and my gardening style of benign neglect at home.